(Full disclosure: I've had a festival of bad movies (including Mac & Me and Battlefield: Earth, both of which I've written about) named in my honor and I recently watched Left Behind: The Movie in its entirety. I exempt myself from none of this critique.)
Of the dozens of things that drive me crazy about politics, the gradual assimilation of our political process with the worst aspects of pop culture has to rank near the top. Over the past decade, as we've transitioned from the postmodern/ironic fads (hipsters listening to Paula Abdul and wearing hideous outdated fashions, Hollywood remaking all manner of 1970s schlock, etc.) to some sort of bizarre post-ironic age in which it is no longer possible to tell the difference between enjoying something because it's good or because it's kitschy. It's the difference between Showgirls – which was intended to be a real movie and ended up being unbelievably bad – and Snakes on a Plane, the makers of which intended to make a movie as bad as possible, capable of being enjoyed only with a wink and a nudge. We live in an era in which taking everything that people hate about advertising, bundling it into a single horrific package, and turning the volume up to 11 results in the birth of a wildly popular cultural phenomenon. Basically, this:
Is your homemade mohawk serious or a joke? Do you actually like The Darkness and Justin Timberlake or are they just, you know, awesomely bad? Are you enjoying Say Yes to the Dress or do you find yourself explaining it to your fellow snark aesthetes as a "guilty pleasure" or entertainment-by-trainwreck? Does the stuff on our TV, headphones, and bookshelves represent the best efforts of creative people, the end result of which may be either good or bad, or something cynically designed for you to enjoy how bad it is? Is that viral video an actual flash mob or just a shrewd viral marketing campaign crafted to look organic? I don't even know anymore, dude.
Maybe this phenomenon doesn't bother you. Maybe it does. I would argue that it's detrimental but if and how people enjoy watching Firefly isn't exactly an issue of Earth-shattering importance. Who ends up in the White House might be.
In a year in which not one but two separate Reality TV Stars have been treated with the utmost seriousness by the Beltway media as potential presidential candidates – fortunately Trump and, apparently, Palin are unlikely to run but happy to milk the free publicity – it is hard not to see similar trends creeping into politics. Is/Was "The Donald" a serious candidate or was his might-be candidacy all a big joke? It's impossible to tell because there is no difference. The media and public see reality TV stardom as a perfectly plausible credential for the White House…because what happens on reality shows is "real", right? So why wouldn't the guy who picks the right apprentice or the woman with all that folksy Lil' Abner-esque wisdom be a serious candidate?
Even among the field of declared candidates it is somewhat complicated to distinguish the Serious candidates from those that would have been dismissed as charlatans in the past. James Stockdale openly laughed about how he had no business being in a presidential debate while Sarah Palin's camp got indignant at the mere suggestion that she didn't belong. Everyone laughs at Mike Gravel, Alan Keyes, Lyndon LaRouche, or Dennis Kucinich when they run, but no one uses the Sunday shows as a platform to announce that, come on, people, Michelle Bachmann cannot be a serious option in any electorate that hasn't completely lost its goddamn mind.
When Trump was badgering Obama during the spring – coincidentally enough, across a time period that began with the first episode of The Apprentice and ended with its season finale – very few things were as depressing as watching the White House and media establishment respond in earnest. "This is a publicity stunt, and who the fuck is Donald Trump?" would have been the sum total of my response. However, a media, political system, and culture unable to distinguish the charlatans from the actual players has no choice but to take the former seriously despite common sense and all evidence to the contrary.